LIMA — Pastor Steven Wash heard the concerns from his congregation and Black constituents around Lima. People were skeptical that the new coronavirus vaccines would keep them safe, that the vaccines were too new and were rushed to market too quickly for people to feel comfortable making an appointment this early into the vaccination effort.
So, Wash and a group of Black clergy members in Lima decided to visit the Bradfield Community Center together and stream their vaccinations live on Facebook, part of a grassroots effort to build trust among Black residents whose fear is often rooted in historical abuses and unethical medical experiments once conducted on Black Americans.
“I thought, maybe as a leader in the community, or me as a leader as a father or a grandfather, that if they saw that I trusted the science that they would also trust it and take the vaccine,” said Wash, pastor with Grace Life Church on Spring Street.
A stark racial disparity has already taken hold in the early stages of the immunization effort.
Of the 6,200 people in Allen County who have received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine in the last six weeks, only 222 were Black, Ohio Department of Health data show.
The trend is playing out in cities across the U.S., as a recent U.S. Census survey found that non-Hispanic Black Americans were the least likely to say they would definitely or probably take a vaccine when offered.
“People have to understand there is a hesitancy, and it’s passed down from generation to generation,” said Dr. Wilfred Ellis, an infectious disease specialist and board president of Allen County Public Health.
Ellis was once apprehensive himself, having learned from his parents that the U.S. Public Health Service and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention once experimented on Black men with syphilis by withholding treatment readily offered to other participants.
But Ellis has also witnessed first-hand the disproportionate ways the pandemic has harmed Black residents, as well as other minority communities and low-income families, who are more likely to work in high-risk environments or live in multi-generational households where social distancing is difficult.
To Ellis, the solution to vaccine hesitancy is simple: respect their concerns and offer an honest assessment of the vaccine studies, which appear safe and reliable even though long-term data is not yet available.
But in some cases, Second Baptist Church Pastor Dennis Ward said the information is not getting to the people who need it most.
Ward, a hospital chaplain and president of the Black Ministerial Alliance, said he and other clergy have been making a lot of those calls themselves to ensure people know where to go if they wish to get a vaccine.
“We have to be at the table, to be able to brainstorm and to be able to talk (about) how we can reach the people that are not being reached,” Ward said. “This disease is not just predicated upon one group of people. And the ones that are being affected significantly across the globe are people who are Black and brown.”